Tag Archives: Harry Houdini

State of the Lands: Locks and Picking

“Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are worlds aplenty, yet only a single Nature.”
-Final Judgement, “The Eye of Kog”

The next subject I want to examine, lying in common between the world you live in and the one I see, is that of locks. It’s a subject of startling similarities Locks3which I have struggled to explain. In fact, the “what” of locks, keys and other means of opening doors in the Lands of Hope looks almost identical to that of the Alleged Real World.

The difference lies in the “why”.

Key Facts

Like them, folks in our realm have known about locks for at least four millennia. Free-standing locks as well as wards on doors were common by the New Kingdom dynasties of Egypt, and rather complex mechanisms were being made in (where else) China long before the birth of Christ. Improvements were gradual through ancient times and the Middle Ages; much more recently, inventors devised the modern pin-and-tumbler keyed locks as well as padlocks, combination safes and even time-lock vaults.

I’ve been glancing over the internet literature on these subjects and it’s made Locks1me think, really hard. Because locks and safes and vaulted doors are also quite common in the Lands of Hope, and for many years I couldn’t understand it.
They’ve had full peace in the liberated lands for more than three thousand years. Despair was routed at the Battle of the Razor, twenty centuries ago, and has been utterly dispelled since then. OK, maybe here and there in the far reaches… but almost everyone, almost all the time, has been free of that threat. So why was I seeing keys and locks across the Hopeful kingdoms? Empty jails with guards, commoners owning nothing still latching their doors at night– what were they afraid of?

Learning from Your Enemies

See, when you think about it, there are really only two reasons you use a lock and key:

  • You have something precious you want to keep safe from theft
  • You have something (or someone) so dangerous you need to keep them confined

And the Children of Hope have hardly any theft, almost no imprisonment. People rarely steal, and when they do it’s more likely a loaf of bread than a Locks2necklace or sword. Thus, they’d have no need for locks or cells.

But Despair—the enemy had all those things in abundance. And one thing more they used to have, which I keep forgetting.

All the land.

Fire with Fire?

Since Hope began as little more than beachheads on the western coast of the Lands, their campaigns of liberation continually revealed the remnants of what Despair had built. Locked doors and vaults everywhere! Because of course the people of Despair were unafraid to work with technology, especially the use of metal in large quantity; and because among them theft was common and imprisonment typical. Hope did not mindlessly copy these customs , but neither did they randomly destroy things they found. They did obey their own leaders, who decided that locks and wards were needed.

Why? Again, because of Despair.

While the children’s versions of Hope’s history make it appear that the heroes easily and quickly rolled back the tide of Despair, a closer examination of the vault1ancient accounts is starting to reveal that the wars of the Third Age were peppered with pauses, counter-strikes, and truces. Exposed to the threat of plundering raids from the enemy, Hope needed to protect its population and valuables with wards of various kinds. Despairing mages used gates and other forms of magic to strike even at targets deep in Hopeful territory. And as Hope won more battles, there were prisoners taken, whose future had to be considered. The practice of custodial imprisonment is innately a Hopeful one, born of a people who would not willingly consider execution in any but the most extreme cases.

Preparation: Some Locks Need to be Picked

So the custom evolved of readiness for attack, and even peasant homes still have a latch for the front door– often provided with a helpful means of entry, such as a pull-string hanging outside, so hardly the most secure method! Someone invested with a position of great responsibility, such as a lord who serves as custodian of the jails, carries a visible key as an outward sign of this symbolic authority. But prisoners, while not unheard of, are very rare indeed. Solemn Judgement was briefly one. That alone would ruin his reputation among most.

Some Hopeful buildings, such as castles on sites of paramount strategic importance, have vaults, donjons or secret rooms because they were literally built on the foundations used by the enemy in ages past. Their Hopeful keepers simply preserved the locks that they found. Many, it is rumored, have safe-rooms or treasure vaults that have never been opened, but are kept in honor of the Hopelords’ commanddungeon-door-joan-carrolls. And talk persists of places where both sides surrendered items of such great power that they could mutually agree to restrict access to them, in a kind of limited disarmament.

This leaves two related subjects to be touched on; how to keep things safer than safe, and who handled locks besides their owners.


Probably the biggest point of difference between the Lands and the Alleged Real World around locks was the willingness of Despair to kill you for trying to open them. skeletonkeybigBlades, poison, explosives, runes, curses, summoned guardians, falling rocks; the saying goes that the enemy never repeated the method used. Accidental death by one of their own? Not their worry– the victims just proved their unworth by failure, and don’t forget, with necromancy they will still serve the cause. So Children of Hope who encounter doors locked by Despair must exercise the most extreme caution.

While their enemies relied on mechanisms to secure property and prisoners, Hope tended to use magic a bit more often, sometimes in the form of a

"Speak Friend and Enter"
“Speak Friend and Enter”

password (such as “Ar Aralte“, since no Minion of Despair could truthfully utter the words that mean “Hope Forever” in the Ancient tongue). Of course, Despair was more willing to essay the complete destruction of an enemy lock or portal in the first place; they frequently destroyed even their own works, then replaced them. In the Alleged Real World, most common burglars into early modern days seldom bothered with the locked door of a hut, when kicking in a wall was easier.

Hope might double-bar, or build a second chamber, use a passive magic locking spell. But especially without the guidance of their Heroes– who departed so abruptly after the Battle of the Razor– there was never the same enthusiasm (or need) for keeping things safe. So the Children of Hope carried on the customs of their revered ancestors, keeping watch over mostly-empty jails and usually leaving alone any lock without a key in their possession.

Usually, but not always. What about those times when the ward must be Locks4overcome? Who is able to defeat these barriers whether created by Hope or Despair? Here is where our two worlds come close together again.

Both here and there, the folks who do it are clearly insane.

Harry Houdini, the Stealthic!

Game-face, clearly loving it
Game-face, clearly loving it

I laughed aloud when I first realized this. Houdini and other escape artists, illusionists and stunt men are really the nearest thing to Stealthics in this world. And if you want to argue that man was nuts, you’ll see me waving a banner in the peanut gallery behind you. Risk for money’s sake, or fame I suppose, and perhaps for its own sake. But you have to admire that level of skill. Houdini always insisted he was staging an illusion, not using magic, in fact he rather vengefully hunted down folks who claimed they had proof of the spirit world. But he seemingly spent his whole life trying to reach that other world, in the form of the most insane risks people had ever seen and still not believed.

Please bear in mind that picking a lock is often illegal in the ARW. With that harry-houdini-ww1said, here’s how. Clearly this involves a ton of practice. Houdini and others built up their breathing, contorted their limbs on command, and of course spent hours just conditioning for the tasks they wanted to perform.

“Risk in the Service of Hope”– Picking Locks and Escaping Wards

The only difference with Stealthics of Hope is that their worst enemies had set up the tests they took. And when they attempted them there was usually no one around to watch. That, in essence, is the motto “risk in the service of Hope”. Stealthics like Trekelny in Three Minutes to Midnight practiced and calculated for months to carry off their acts of stealth and earn a place in legend. Such legends only hint that Astor, the Prince of Peril from the days of heroes, was not only often behind enemy lines during the wars picking locks and plundering artefacts, but he was also captured, at least once. Whether the ranks of Despair had anyone to match his daring and skill, no record tells. All in all, I’d prefer not.

So in both worlds there are locked and warded places, and people who bolt their doors “just because”; soon we’ll also use magic to open them (speaking the passwords aloud, or using a “wand” to lock them behind us). The ARW has Locks5more thieves, while the Lands have the greater consequence for failure.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this comparison of security and risk between two realms. Check out other installments of State of the Lands for further reflections.